Topeka Misses the Point

Walking in Topeka. Photo: Anthony S. Bush/Topeka Capital-Journal.

Walking in Topeka. Photo: Anthony S. Bush/Topeka Capital-Journal.

As the Complete Streets movement grows, it is inevitable that some people will misunderstand what it is all about. That appears to be the case with Topeka, Kansas. The city levied a half-cent sales tax to be used for road maintenance and improvements (including sidewalks). Hope was high that this would be an opportunity to begin to complete Topeka’s streets; community groups had sponsored a Complete Streets Workshop in June for city planners and engineers and even held a community pep rally for the concept. But a couple of weeks ago, city manager Norton Bonaparte made a distinction between road repairs, such as filling potholes, and “Complete Streets elements,” declaring that the road repairs would be funded through the bond measure, but “Complete Streets elements” that added “extra costs” would not. The City Council will need to come up with extra funds for these elements, and he proposed budgeting $100,000 annually from general funds.

Bonaparte was making common mistake by using Complete Streets as a synonym for the bicycle/pedestrian/transit features of a roadway. Of course that is not what Complete Streets means – it means routinely considering the needs of all road users in each road project, with the expectation that the available funding is meant to create a complete transportation corridor. By definition, Complete Streets is the opposite of having to find special funds for road users other than automobiles.

Wheelchair user Donald Robinsen navigates a tricky sidewalk in Topeka. Photo: Thad Allton, Topeka Capital-Journal.

Wheelchair user Donald Robinsen navigates a tricky sidewalk in Topeka. Photo: Thad Allton, Topeka Capital-Journal.

Unfortunately, we have seen this misunderstanding repeated in a subtler way, when people who seem enthusiastic about Complete Streets then shake their heads, saying their community can’t afford it; it is clear they are still thinking of non-motorized and transit elements as ‘extra amenities.’ In fact, adopting a Complete Streets policy is a shift in priorities to include the needs of all road users. Most communities have found that increased costs are negligible; others have found ways to phase in improvements over time, and many have decided that creating a quality road that serves everyone creates better long-term value and contributes to community livability.

So we invite the city manager to either change his stance or at least say what he really means: that the sales tax investments will not cover the needs of non-motorized users or transit patrons. It is clear that Topeka is a long way from having a Complete Streets approach in its transportation program, but we hope that will change with time.

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    3 Responses to Topeka Misses the Point

    1. H Campbell says:

      This story presents the reality that City and County Government does not have the revenue base to provide some of the most basic major maintenance needs let alone begin to retro-fit and improve existing infrastructure. After over 28 years as an official in City and County governments, I have concluded that the typical taxpayer is unwilling to fund some of the most basic community needs. The City Manager is not the enemy you protray. You are singing to the Choir instead of reaching out to the Citizens with the most influence and then to the elected officials.

    2. David says:

      The City Manager (and Topeka) does not miss the point! Did the author talk with Mr. Bonaparte or simply rely on a quote from the newspaper to guage Mr. Bonaparte’s understanding of complete streets? The City Manager was only explaining to the City Council the wording on a half cent sales tax referendum that was passed for street repairs and how, legally, these funds can be spent. For example, if a street to be repaied does not have a sidewalk, under the referendum, a sidewalk can not be added with the half cent sales tax proceeds. Before suggesting that someone change his stance, the author should fully undersand it.

    3. I’m not disputing Topeka’s right to decide how to spend its sales tax; simply pointing out that there is nothing about this discussion that meets the definition of Complete Streets. Topeka does not now have a Complete Streets policy, and clearly isn’t there yet — because city officials are still thinking of safe bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure (which they erroneously call ‘Complete Streets elements’) as extra amenities. Communities with Complete Streets policies have decided to use their mainstream transportation funds to meet the needs of all travelers. The decision on how to spend this sales tax does not meet that standard. I hope Topeka considers adopting a stand-alone Complete Streets policy at some time in the future, and we’re ready to help.

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